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Vertigo: The Punk Rock of Comics

In the wake of vertigo comics’ closure, Hashaam Yaqoob looks at the imprint’s most culturally influential comics

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Image Credit: DC and Vertigo Publishers

It’s 1954, we’re still revelling in the economic boom of World War Two, and some boring old Puritan named Charles Murphy enacts the comics code of authority. This heavily censored comics in a bid to protect innocent little children. Batman was no longer a tortured, pulpy vigilante, who dressed as a bat and carried a Glock 22 to shoot small time drug dealers in the face. Now he is a whimsical old man who rejects guns and works in tandem with the police, all while secretly recruiting vulnerable young children to become borderline child soldiers against crime.

However, all this came to pass by the time the 1970s came around, when two countries found themselves in the middle of a major existential conflict, which we aptly named the Cold War. America and Russia really wanted to blow each other up but in doing so they risked apocalyptic consequences. As you can see this is a very sensitive and nuanced problem. The anxieties and fear of being wiped out at any moment caused society’s worldview to become bleaker and more cynical, and they expressed this as they always do, through art. We had the punk movement in the 70s. And it’s during this time in which a slew of underground comics and artists started to crop up, comics that were adult, edgy and fiercely political, spearheaded by artists who were drugged out of their minds on LSD. The result of this was the softening and eventual destruction of the comics code of authority. This allowed the Big Two (Marvel and DC) to take some more risks.

But it was DC during this time who pushed the envelope and changed opinions of what comic book storytelling was capable of. This long diatribe brings us to the creation of the Vertigo label owned by DC. What caused DC to open this brand-new label devoted solely to more adult and complex comics? Well, the answer to that is the British. In the 1980s, a group of British comic book writers flooded the American comics market, injecting a much-needed bit of British cynicism to it. The two most renowned of these individuals were Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman, who created Watchmen and Sandman respectively. These titles caught the attention of Karen Berger and inspired her to persuade DC to make more comic books like these; however, as DC still had a reputation that had to appeal to kids, Berger suggested opening a publishing label under the DC brand. This publishing label was called Vertigo comics, which was established in 1993. Unfortunately, as of January 2020, DC has announced that Vertigo comics will be closing, and their adult titles will be incorporated into the DC universe, for better or for worse. But it was worse, much worse. I thought it would be fun to look at some of the more popular comics in the Vertigo library and analyse the legacy of this influential publishing label.

Watchmen
In 1983, DC acquired a fresh batch of IP, from the closure of Charleston Comics. These characters went unused for a quite a bit of time, until an angry wizard (he really is a wizard) named Alan Moore showed up to the scene and asked if he could use them for a 12-issue run and have some of them killed off in the end. DC obviously declined, not happy with Moore wanting to throw away their recently acquired golden nuggets. They suggested he come up with some original characters based off the Charlton Superheroes. And so, he did, that idea became the Watchmen. The comics industry was going through quite a change during this time. Cold War paranoia nurtured cynicism and disillusionment with Americana. Moore’s idea was to answer, “what would superheroes be like in real life?” And so, one of the greatest graphic novels ever was made. Watchmen was the final nail in the coffin to the jolly old Silver Age. Watchmen treated events based on real world scenarios such as the Cold War, McCarthyism, sexism, homophobia and mental health, and treated them with serious gravity, deconstructing the idea of superheroes with appalling sex and violence.

Watchmen is set in a world in which costumed vigilantes began to emerge in 1938; other than this key difference the rest of universe closely mirrors our own. The story follows a group of heroes called the Minutemen which has been disbanded for nine years because of a government Act which outlawed costumed vigilantism. The catalyst to their reunion is the murder of one of their former members.

Watchmen was important and ground breaking in the comics industry, it was so good it ruined comics for the next decade or so, even being one of the reasons the comic industry crashed in the 1990s. Every hack began to write stories that were dark and provocative but superficial and lacked any of the nuance and careful dedication to making the idea work. Watchmen is also important in literary circles too: it’s studied in universities, it’s been the only graphic novel to have been included in Time’s best 100 novels ever made. If you recognise some plot elements or tone from my description of the comic, you’d realise the impact it has had on superhero movies like Captain America: Civil War which used the same idea of monitoring or banning superheroes within its plot, the entirety of DC universe’s botched attempts to bring their characters to life, or The Incredibles, which swapped political murder mystery for a domestic drama.

Sandman
Neil Gaiman wanted to write a superhero comic based on the DC hero Sandman, a silly character who wore a gas mask and put bad guys to sleep. Gaiman’s dream was answered when Karen Berger asked him to write his idea for DC, unfortunately he couldn’t use the original characters, and with the idea of a deathly skinny man with long black hair, imprisoned and waiting for his captor to die, came a 75-issue epic fantasy published in 1989. Sandman jumpstarted Gaiman’s career as a successful novelist of fantasy stories such as Coraline, American Gods, and Stardust. It was a pivotal moment for DC. After the massive success of Watch - men,They needed one more hit to ensure that this approach would be sustainable. And it was. Critically and commercially Sandman was a hit. In a landscape dominated by superheroes, Sandman was different. It was an epic tale that mixed real world history with deep and creative fantasy. It followed Morpheus, the god of dreams and granter of wishes, after he was imprisoned for 70 years by occultist and sets out to rebuild his kingdom while undoing past sins. Sandman is a story about the purpose of stories. And more importantly what is the point of dreams? It deals with the consequences of desire, while introducing you to characters who are brimming with personality. It also deals with the importance of having a dream, a goal, or a wish to strive for. This series is brilliant and if you love the fantasy genre you owe it to yourself to give this a read.

V for Vendetta
This is going to be the last time I talk about our favourite wizard, I promise. V for Vendetta is just as influential as Watchmen. Britain in the 1980s was also a bleak time. Thatcher was reigning, and austerity was at an all time high, and so Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons paired up once more to create a political tour de force of a comic. Standing up to fascism and fighting against injustice is the heart and soul. It was written by Alan Moore and David Lloyd, and is set in an alternative future history, one where the really-left wing Labour Party win the 1983 General Election (at the time they were well ahead in the polls) and cancel all nuclear weapons, a manifesto pledge. There is a nuclear war, but Britain is spared the attack and survives. However, the country is thrown into economic chaos and from it emerges Norsefire, an antiimmigration, anti-miscegenation, anti-gay, anti-Semitic party who are elected and enact a fascist state. The story follows a young girl named Evey who is saved by an anarchic terrorist named V. Alan Moore took the idea of superheroes and put them into a context of fighting against systemic oppression. The world of V for Vendetta is rife with fascism, white supremacism, and the horrors of a police state. And it's warnings about what Britain or any country can easily become remain relevant to this day. The impact of the story is visible, the iconic Guy Fawkes mask that V dons, has become a universal symbol of protest and revolt. It revised the historical figure Guy Fawkes from a religious nutter to a symbol of fighting for what you believe in. It also spawned the very popular film made by the Wachowski sisters.

Hellblazer
In 1993, DC had now decided to go through with opening the Vertigo publishing label and all those previous titles I mentioned would be housed under this brand new label. The first major Vertigo success was likely John Constantine: Hellblazer. You might recognise the name from the Constantine film by the Wachowski sisters who horrifically butchered the somaterial and caused Alan Moore t o force the film to take his name off the credits. Constantine is a great story whose impact can be felt in media through shows like Supernatural, and pretty much a l l those other paranormal detective shows with Castiel being a clear homage to the Hellblazer. John was originally meant to be a one issue character to be killed off in an issue of Swamp Thing, however the character proved to be immensely popular and span off into his own solo series. The first run of the series was written by Jamie Delano. The story followed John Constantine , who is a chainsmoking con artist and criminal by trade and an occult detective by happenstance. Delano managed to flesh out the character and ground him in a reality very close to ours. The comics are rife with political satire; Delano himself despised Thatcher and you could feel his hatred through each issue even culminating with John implying the UK is going to hell when Thatcher is elected Prime Minister. This set a precedent for the comic for each upcoming writer to use it as a way of venting their frustrations about society through stories that combined pulp noir with supernatural horror. John may be a bastard, but he was also a hero for social justice. He didn’t solve problems through magic but instead through his quick wit and cunning personality.

The Invisibles
As you can see, Vertigo really tried to distinguish itself from superhero comics either by deconstructing them or telling different stories in the medium. The best way I can describe The Invisibles is that it sure is different. Written by the legend that is Grant Morrison, who is the comic industry’s crazy uncle who’s most likely to give you your first beer and won’t stop talking about the time he was abducted by aliens. First published in 1994, the series loosely follows the doings of a single cell of The Invisible College, a secret organization battling against physical and psychic oppression using time travel, magic, meditation, guns and kung fu. The first part of the story follows a rebellious Liverpudlian named Dan McGowan who, after experiencing a vision of The Beatles, is recruited by a ragtag group of leather-cladded freedom fighters who use avatars of themselves to travel through time and space because reality is merely an illusion. Dan is dubbed “The One ‘’ that will free humanity from its oppression by soulless evil creatures named Archons who invaded earth after their universe was dying. If any of these plot elements seem familiar to you, you’re probably thinking of The Matrix. There’s a lot more similarities between the two, from the leap of faith from a building, to blue substances , and a magic mirror that will help you open your eyes. Unfortunately, the Wachowskis have always worn their influences on their sleeves but neglect to mention one of the main inspirations for their film, there’s even stories of The Invisibles comic being given to costume designers of the film on set, showing that they were at least aware of it. But if you like trippy post modern literature give The Invisibles a shot.

Transmetropolitan
Transmetropolitan can probably be summed in one sentence. ‘Hunter S Thompson in the future.’ The series was written by Warren Ellis in 1997 and first published under Helix comics but later under Vertigo once the company closed, essentially saving it from being cancelled. This series follows popular columnist Spider Jerusalem, who, after being roped in to finish his book deal, must return to the city after his self-imposed exile. Spider is an odd protagonist for a book, he stomps his feet and throws tantrums like a child, he’s cynical and abrasive to a fault, he’s often rude and demeaning to his assistants who are often young women, and he indulges in every drug imaginable on a constant basis. But in the twisted world of Transmetropolitan, he is the hero because you see throughout the story that he does indeed have a soul and that he cares, he cares deeply about the injustices of society and forcing people to look at the aspects of society they tend to ignore. His pretentious pursuit of the truth at all costs is as admirable as it is insane. The book is hilarious, outrageous and highly relevant. The world of Transmet is mean, bigoted, and accurately predicted the Trump era of politics in my view, in terms of capturing the vulgar absurdity of the current political scene. Jerusalem is pitched against two political opponents: The Beast, a physically imposing bully with an authoritarian streak and caters to nationalist populism, and The Smiler, a cunning and charming individual who represents a liberal alternative until Spider uncovers more and more sinister motivations and a person who wants to be president just because he can, or to satisfy his ego. These two individuals represent our greatest fears when it comes to the political elites. Sir Patrick Stewart is its greatest fan, and even writes the introduction to the books in the latest editions. So, if you like witty and smart political satire then give Transmetropolitan a read.

Preacher
With the comic’s code of authority pretty much abolished, how far can artists go? Well, in the 1970s it was damn far in the underground world of comics. In terms of mainstream comics, things still seemed a bit more sanitised. Along came Preacher in 1995 written by Garth Ennis. Preacher is a hyper-violent, blasphemous, and foul-mouthed story about a preacher who, with his ex-girlfriend and his vampire best friend, is on a quest to find God and maybe put a bullet through his head. Preacher was known for its offensive and edgy nature, but it is a story with a lot of heart and pathos and unlike other comics at the time it knew how to be edgy and provocative; the racists, homophobes and bigots were all the big baddies in the books. It made fun of conservatism in America and posed surprisingly poignant philosophical questions about religion and the nature of God. Also, the comic is just balls to the walls insanity from start to finish.

Fables
All this talk of politics is getting boring, let’s move on to something only a bit more light-hearted. What if Fairy tale creatures came to Earth as refugees and hid amongst us in plain sight? First published in 2002 and ending in 2015, written by Bill Willingham, the series features various characters from fairytales and folklore. They refer to themselves as ‘Fables’, who formed a clandestine community a century ago within New York City known as Fabletown, after their homelands had been conquered by a mysterious and deadly enemy known as ‘The Adversary.’ While it is an ensemble cast following many characters, I would say that the main character would probably be Bigby Wolf (The Big Bad Wolf) who becomes Sheriff of Fabletown and is on a path of redemption after living a terrible life in his home world. The story is endlessly charming with a surprising amount of darkness and grit. Bill Willingham took these characters from stories, myths and legend and treated them as real people. All are multidimensional and dynamic. And any story that makes you ship Snow White and The Big Bad Wolf can’t be bad. And yes, the TV show Once Upon A Time absolutely ripped off the concept and executed a subpar television show for it.

With all the work Vertigo has done to help push the envelope for mainstream comics, the comics industry is almost a completely free landscape, where any sort of story can be told and become popular. We have creator owned publishers like ID comics which are telling some fantastically unique stories and independent publishing is becoming popular too. The goal of Vertigo has been completed to push DC and mainstream comics in a different direction, one that isn’t scared to take at least some risk. And with so many others doing what Vertigo is doing, they hardly seem relevant now. It makes sense for them to finally close production. But with DC’s moneygrabbing hands already foaming at the mouth to milk these cash cows, the sacredness of Vertigo com- ics now seems tainted. We’ve al- ready got a Watchmen sequel with the sole intention to profit off the Watchmen brand in the form of Doomsday Clock. It’s a shame because these are great stories that were driven by creators with something to say, and not some middle-aged man in editorial wondering which idea will bring in the most profits. So, with that said, it’s time to say farewell to Vertigo comics, and thanks.

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2 Comment

Jake Baugh Posted on Saturday 4 Apr 2020

Great read! I am actually a big comic book fan and I'm going to publish one soon as well. I found out its name from the Comic Book Name Generator

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mr lohiss Posted on Saturday 4 Apr 2020

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